White House of Music String Instrument Buying Guide
Some string players will tell you that finding the perfect string instrument is like falling in love-you just know when you've found "the one". Still, it's important to consider many factors when choosing the ideal instrument. Tone, appearance, and construction are all crucial to the overall integrity of the instrument. Here are some important things to look for when purchasing a fine stringed instrument:
The pegs will affect the tuning stability of the instrument. They should be made of ebony, rosewood, or boxwood. The pegs are held in by tension so they must be cut to fit each individual instrument. They must be properly shaped in order to move easily when needed and hold well.
The fingerboard is a big factor in an instrument’s ease of playing. It should always be made of ebony. The fingerboard needs to be at the right angle and height to ensure good playability. The nut is the little raised piece of ebony at the top of the fingerboard. It creates the spacing of the strings and gives some of the height to the strings.
Strings and Tone
Strings can affect the tone quality of the instrument.
Steel Strings: tend to be longer lasting and more durable for a younger player, but they give a more metallic sound.
Synthetic Gut Strings: are a nylon like substance wrapped with metal. They stretch more and give a warmer , richer tone quality.
Players should listen carefully to the tone of the instrument and experiment with it extensively before making a decision to purchase. Some players prefer bright, light tones and others favor warm, darker tones. While strings are a large component of the instrument's tone, the wood, age, varnish, and fittings also contribute. The player's preferred tone is entirely a matter of preference.
The purfling is 3 fine strips of wood inlaid into the top and bottom plates around the edges. It aids in the vibration of the plates because it is a more flexible point.
The number of fine tuners is determined by the type of strings on the instrument. For steel strings there will be 4 fine tuners because they only need to be tuned a little at a time. For synthetic gut strings there will usually be 1 fine tuner for the E string. The other strings are more elastic and should be tuned from the peg. The other fine tuners can be added if player wishes.
The wood can affect the functionality of the instrument.
The proper wood for the instrument is:
1. Spruce for the top plate
2. Maple for the back plate and sides
The wood should be seasoned anywhere from 5 to 25 years. The more seasoned the wood is, the more stable it will be and less likely to crack or shrink (causing open seams).
Flaming in the wood on the back of the instrument is mostly for looks. Typically a more expensive instrument will have more flaming or deeper coloring. Although, some manufacturers are using nicer cuts of wood at all levels. For most people the flaming doesn’t affect the tone quality, but a physicist might disagree. Some cheaper instruments may paint on flaming.
The back of an instrument can come either as a one or two piece back. The two piece will have a seam down the middle and the halves should mirror each other. The one piece back will have no seam. Again, most people can’t tell if the one or two piece back affects the sound. The one piece back is more rare, as it is harder to find good pieces of wood big enough to make a complete back.
Some players may feel that a one piece back is better because there is no seam to disrupt the vibrations. Others may say the two piece is better because the sides will be symmetrical and will then vibrate the same way.
The varnish used will affect the tone quality of the instrument. Wood that can vibrate more freely will give a richer, more resonant sound.
Spirit or Oil Based Varnish: takes the longest to apply and dry and is relatively soft. It is the most flexible finish and more resonant.
Polyurethane Lacquer: is less expensive to apply. It is very durable and protective, but tends to be thicker and not as resonant as a spirit/oil varnish.
The bridge transmits the vibrations of the strings to the body of the instrument. It is an integral part of creating the instrument's sound. It can also affect how easily the instrument is played. The bridge needs to be cut and fit by a trained technician. The feet need to match the curve of the top of the instrument. The top of the bridge is cut for ease of bowing and string crossing. It will not be symmetrical. The low string side of the bridge will be higher than the upper string side.
The Internal Structure
The corner, neck and end blocks are solid pieces of wood set at the neck, the bottom, and the corners of the bouts to hold the ribs to the plates and give strength to the structure.
The lining is narrow strips of wood fitted and glued to the ribs and plates of the instrument. It helps strengthen the sides and adds surface area for gluing the top.
The bass bar is a long, thin piece of wood glued lengthwise to the top on the low side of the instrument. It adds strength and enhances the range and projection of the lower tones. It helps to distribute the vibrations from bridge along the wood plates.
The soundpost is a small spruce dowel cut to fit between the top and bottom plates on the high side of the instrument. Its position will have an affect on tone.
We are happy to help you find the perfect instrument. Please contact White House of Music with questions!